There were also cultural issues at Microsoft when it came to advertising. On Madison Avenue, they say that the more hands that touch an advertisement, the worse it becomes. Microsoft felt differently. “They thought the more people saw it and gave an opinion, the better it would be,” Mr. Musser said. “That’s how you develop software. It’s not how you develop great creative.”
So Ms. Mathews tried to change things. She set up a nine-member task force to figure out a marketing strategy and keep meddlers at arm’s length.
In February 2008, Microsoft picked Crispin Porter. At the agency, Mr. Reilly was initially apprehensive. He didn’t even own a PC; he had an ultraslim MacBook Air. (He has since bought himself two PCs — a Sony Vaio and a Lenovo ThinkPad.)
The adman also wondered whether Microsoft was ready for a Crispin campaign. Mr. Reilly himself oversees the agency’s irreverent work for Burger King, aimed at young men hungering for menu items like the Triple Whopper.
He wanted to come up with a campaign that would redefine Windows, and he counseled against ads that attacked Apple. Then he changed his tune. Last summer in Apple ads, Mr. Hodgman’s PC character morphed into a personification of Microsoft itself. PC was haunted by problems with Vista. He took up yoga to calm his nerves, only to discover that his teacher was on edge because Vista wreaked havoc on her billing system. PC tried to find peace by creating a line of herbal teas with names like “Crashy-Time Camomile” and “Raspberry Restart.”
“As the tone of their campaign became more and more negative, we were like, ‘We gotta do something,’ ” Mr. Reilly said. “That’s where the whole notion of ‘I’m a PC’ and putting a face on our users came about. We have a billion users. That’s who our cast is, whereas Apple is just two fictitious characters.”
Microsoft recruited influential Windows fans like the “Desperate Housewives” star Eva Longoria. “I feel bad about the little PC guy,” she said this month. “He is always getting beaten up.” It also brought in some who would appeal to niche audiences, like the Pittsburgh mash-up D.J. Gregg Gillis, who is better known as Girl Talk.
When Mr. Ballmer finally saw the ads in September, he congratulated Ms. Mathews and gave her a high-five. Then, Ms. Mathews says, he started shouting, “I’m a PC!”
As the “I’m a PC” ads with Mr. Siler replaced them two weeks later, Apple’s “Get a Mac” spots disappeared. Microsoft doesn’t think that was a coincidence. When PC and Mac reappeared, it was in the advertising that criticized Microsoft as spending on ads rather than on Vista.
Microsoft thought that it had scored a point. “You’ve got to look at that and say, ‘You are not advertising to consumers; you’re advertising to the Microsoft marketing department,’ ” Ms. Mathews says. “I just admit that did bring a smile to my face.”
Emboldened, Microsoft continued its barrages. In February, it unveiled its “Rookies” ads, arguing that PCs are so easy to use that even Kylie, an adorable 4 1/2-year old, could upload a picture of her goldfish, Dorothy, onto her PC and e-mail it to her relatives. You want to make fun of Kylie, Apple? Microsoft and Crispin dare you to try it.
The next month, Microsoft deployed its “Laptop Hunters” ads. They clearly moved the needle in Microsoft’s favor. Ted Marzilli, a managing director of BrandIndex, a company that tracks consumer perceptions, said that at the beginning of the year, adults thought Apple offered more value than Microsoft. In May, however, Microsoft closed the gap in the firm’s surveys. “Apple took a hit,” Mr. Marzilli said. “Since then, they have been neck and neck.”
In June, Microsoft felt that it had more reason to gloat. The chief operating officer, B. Kevin Turner, says he got a call from an Apple lawyer who asked him to change the ads because Apple was lowering its prices by $100. “I did cartwheels down the hallway,” Mr. Turner subsequently boasted in speech at a New Orleans conference.
Then Apple announced its second-quarter rebound. And for some analysts, it seemed like game over. “The reality is that Apple’s business has been impacted by the overall economy, not by Microsoft’s campaign,” said Gene Munster, senior research analyst at Piper Jaffray. “Those ‘What can I get for 1,000 bucks’ ads? That was a clever campaign. But it never really caught on. If you compare it to ‘Get a Mac,’ it didn’t even register.”
And yet Apple keeps responding. On Friday, it released its Snow Leopard operating system a month ahead of schedule, accompanied by a new round of “Get a Mac” ads. One involves a red-headed woman who is clearly intended to resemble Microsoft’s Lauren. PC introduces her to his suave friend, a top-of-the-line model played by Patrick Warburton, who was David Puddy on “Seinfeld.” She declines to buy a Windows machine when they can’t promise that she won’t have virus woes.
Microsoft, however, has found it enjoys mixing it up with Apple on the airwaves. In July, Mr. Ballmer told analysts that Crispin’s work had been “quite effective.” He promised that Microsoft would continue investing heavily in Windows marketing. “We didn’t do that three, four, five, six years ago,” he added.
Funny the way that the Mac ads have created a reverse David and Goliath. I find myself pulling for Microsoft, the long-time market leader. Reckon it doesn’t help my bias that real life Mac users get a little Justin Long-ish themselves from time to time: can’t find a document, or can’t get a signal? Wouldn’t be a problem if you had a MacBook or an iPhone. psha.
Typically it’s the individual manufacturers that do the advertising — Dude, you’re getting a Dell! — but right now Microsoft is taking the creative challenge personally. True, their ads don’t have the style, panache, or comic value of the Mac commercials, but it’s kind of fun to watch the back and forth.
Could do without the a capella bingbong jingle, though.